NBA Season Preview: The Washington Wizards

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john_wall_washington_wizards_summer_league.jpgLast season: 26-56, which actually sounds better than it was. The Wizards were disappointing long before two pistols ever found their way into the Washington locker room, or Gilbert Arenas unholstered his finger guns, or the Wiz started trading away their most productive players.  

Head Coach:
Flip Saunders. Considering last season’s extracurricular activities, Saunders did a fairly decent job of preventing a complete implosion. He’ll have plenty of new talent to play with this season and not all that many quantifiable expectations, so as long as Saunders does the same kind of coaching that got him the gig in the first place (creative offense, decent defense) while keeping John Wall happy, and grooming the young’ns,  making the playoffs is really secondary.

Key Departures:
Mike Miller, Randy Foye, Shaun Livingston, James Singleton, Earl Boykins, a dark cloud hanging overhead.

Key Additions:
John Wall, Kirk Hinrich, Yi Jianlian, Josh Howard (re-signed), Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Booker, members of the Cult of John Wall.

Best case scenario: Wall is an undeniable star, Gilbert Arenas’ play reminds us of the star he once was, Andray Blatche suddenly gets it, JaVale McGee looks and plays the part of a reliable starting center, Yi Jianlian looks like a regular contributor, and the Wizards live happily ever after on their way toward fringe contention for a playoff spot.

For that to happen: Well, like the prompt dictates, a lot will have to go right. Just about everything, in fact. Reaching that scenario will mostly be contingent on individual performances, because at this point, that’s what the Wizards are playing for. Appraisal. Evaluation. Individual consistency. To see which players play well and which don’t, and to see which mix of players should form Washington’s fledgling core.

How they play and perform as a team is obviously still of great import, but less so for Washington than other squads. The Wizards are not a playoff team this season. Not unless Wall is out-of-this-world good as a rook, Arenas spent his offseason becoming an alchemist that can turn bad shot attempts into gold, or one of the other rotation regulars decides to evolve into something outright nasty. 

More likely, the Wizards will: Be alright, but not playoff contenders. The gap between what the Wizards could be and what the rest of
the Eastern Conference teams already are is simply too substantial to
expect a postseason berth for Washington. Instead, they’ll begin to form the structure of something that could one day be great. Wall is a central ingredient, but Washington’s other young talent should take steps forward alongside him, even if they can’t quite keep up.

Wall is going to be a treat, the full sweetness of which we can’t even fathom at the moment. It’s going to be a hell of a show, and Wall will prove that he’s completely worthy of all the pre-draft (and post-draft, for that matter) trumpeting.

His addition just isn’t enough to push Washington over the hump. The claim that the Wizards will miss the playoffs is not a declaration of the Knicks and Bobcats as some kind of
powerhouse tandem. Hardly so. Washington just needs some work, and
expecting them to put in all of that work over the course of one season while also mounting
a serious playoff push is a bit much.

The Wizards were 25th in the league
in defensive rebounding rate last season, and their most significant rebounding addition is likely Yi, who has averaged just 7.9 boards per 36 minutes over his career. I like JaVale McGee and Andray Blatche as much as anyone, but both need to be more prolific and more consistent in their rebounding. Could happen, but color me doubtful.

Washington was horrible on offense last season, ranking 26th in effective field goal percentage, 25th in turnover rate, and 22nd in free throw rate. Having Wall and Arenas on the court should do wonders to help in each of those categories, but a rookie point guard (even one of Wall’s talents) and an unpredictable scoring guard aren’t the surest horses to right the ship, even in a poorly-conceived mixed metaphor. Both will help the Wizards thrive in comparison to last season, but jumping from an atrocious offense to a passable one isn’t likely to guarantee the Wizards a playoff spot.

Plus, as bad as the Wizards’ offense was last season, their defense may have been even worse. That kind of thing tends to happen when four of the team’s five starters (including their best defensive center) are gone by February, forcing Saunders to dig deep into his bench for potential stopgaps.

This group should be better, but man. Gilbert Arenas. Al Thornton. Nick Young. Josh Howard. Hilton Armstrong. Yi Jianlian. Please, stop me when I get to a name that encourages confidence in Washington’s defense.

The Wizards should improve by default on the defensive end this season, but again, there’s a question of how much improvement can be reasonably expected. Perhaps they’ll find a way to reconcile some of their individual defensive deficiencies with good rotations and sound decision-making on the back line. That just sounds like a lot to expect from McGee, Blatche, and the Wizards’ perimeter defenders, most of whom have been a bit light on defensive savvy up to this point.

Prediction: 35 wins. Turn the page, Wizards. It’s a new day.

After full season in Europe, Luka Doncic not expected to play in Summer League

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Deandre Ayton played 35 games for Arizona last season. Marvin Bagley III played 33 games last season for Duke. Jarnen Jackson Jr. played 35 for Michigan State. None of them played past March.

Luka Doncic played 61 games for Real Madrid — at a higher level than NCAA basketball — and the season ended two days before the NBA Draft. Plus in Europe, the practices are often far more strenuous than the games (many teams keep doing two-a-days through the season).

Not surprisingly after that long a season Dallas is not going to ask Doncic to play in the Las Vegas Summer League, reports Tim MacMahon of ESPN.

This was expected in most quarters no matter who drafted Doncic. Rest and recovery matter more than getting him into the glorified pickup games of Summer League.

Doncic will be ready to go when the season starts, and he will be one of the favorites to win Rookie of the Year.

Former Spur Bruce Bowen rips Kawhi Leonard for asking out after injury

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For years, players have bought into “the Spurs way” not just on the court but off — it was always about what’s best for the team first. That meant Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and others taking discounts from the max salary they could have earned at points to help the team keep the roster to do that. Sacrifice was part of the game.

So it shouldn’t be a shock that former Spurs are closing ranks around Gregg Popovich and the franchise in the wake of Kawhi Leonard pushing his way out the door following missing most of last season with a leg injury.  It was the treatment of that leg injury — Leonard did not trust the Spurs’ doctors and got a second opinion that saw things differently — which started the rift, although the advice from Leonard’s uncle/advisor and agent also play a role in widening the gap.

On SiriusXM NBA Radio this week (h/t ESPN) former Spur Bruce Bowen ripped into Leonard for complaining about his treatment.

“First, it was, ‘Well I was misdiagnosed.’ Look here: You got $18 million this year, and you think that they’re trying to rush you? You didn’t play for the most part a full season this year. And you’re the go-to guy, you’re the franchise and you want to say that they didn’t have your best interest at heart? Are you kidding me?…

“I think he’s getting bad advice,” Bowen said. “I think what you’re starting to see now is an individual given a certain amount of advice, and it’s not the right advice. Here it is: You were protected in San Antonio. You were able to come up during a time where you still could lean on Tim [Duncan] Tony [Parker] and Manu [Ginobili]…

“As a player, if I’m a leader of a team, my team goes on the road in the playoffs, I’m with my guys,” he said. “Because that’s what it’s all about. It’s about camaraderie. It’s about fellowship. It’s a brotherhood. When that didn’t happen, it’s all kinds of sirens and alarm signals that says to me, ‘Is this person fully vested?’ … I don’t want to take on a player who’s not willing to support his guys during the course of their time needing him.”

Bowen added, “there’s nothing but excuses going on.”

The backlash to Leonard is to be expected, particularly from those in San Antonio (not so much from people in Los Angeles, where Leonard is trying to force himself to). The injury treatment started the rift, but Leonard is putting his desires in front of those of the team and franchise — and that’s his right, he’s far from the first player to do that. It’s just not something we have seen from San Antonio. The Spurs have long sought out not only guys who could play on the court but guys who fit a mold personality wise and would put the team first. On the court Leonard had done that, going back to when he won Finals MVP. Now, off it, he has had a change of heart, for whatever reason (or reasons).

Bowen is more outspoken than most, but this will be the sentiment out of San Antonio if Leonard leaves.

That is not going to change the reality on the ground, however.

Michael Porter Jr.’s status for Summer League, next season unclear

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Blake Griffin. Joel Embiid. Ben Simmons. Most recently, Harry Giles.

NBA teams are not afraid to sit an injured player throughout his rookie year, not if they think there’s a payoff on the other side.

Thursday night during the NBA Draft concerns about Michael Porter Jr.’s surgically repaired back (among other things) had the guy considered a potential top pick a year ago sliding down the board to Denver at No. 14. That’s potentially a steal for the Nuggets, but even at the press conference immediately after the pick Nuggets’ president of basketball operations Tim Connelly sounded very cautious.

A day later, speaking to Marc Spears of The Undefeated at ESPN, both Porter Jr. and the Nuggets’ owner/president were suggesting he is out for Summer League and could have a redshirt year next season.

Porter Jr. said the day before the draft that it was possible he could miss summer league action through injury…

Nuggets president Josh Kroenke told The Undefeated he was uncertain about whether Porter Jr. would play in summer league or during the 2018-19 season.

According to reports, Porter Jr. was showing a slight limp at his introductory press conference with the Nuggets Friday.

The Nuggets are right to be cautious here and think long-term. It would be a shock to see Porter Jr. at Summer League in July. Could he lace up his shoes and play at some point next season? Maybe. Depends on his rehab and how he progresses, but the Nuggets have zero fear of letting him sit out a season. This is a team that just missed the playoffs last season and is expected to take a step forward this time around without Porter — they don’t need him to be good, they have Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and the rest.

Porter needs to get healthy, and that very well may mean sitting out a season. Then when he does play accept a role and go from there.

Take 2: Collin Sexton to wear Kyrie Irving’s jersey number with Cavaliers

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — Collin Sexton endeared himself to the Cavaliers with his competitive streak, speed and attitude long before they picked him in the NBA draft.

His jersey number showed them something else: He’s fearless.

Sexton made quite a first impression by deciding to take No. 2, his college number but also the one previously worn in Cleveland by All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving. After showing off his jersey at a news conference Friday, Sexton said he doesn’t feel pressure to live up to Irving’s high standards.

“Not at all,” he said. “Coming in, I’m going to set goals for myself and then as well there’s going to be team goals set. But I feel like I’m not going to have to live up to anybody’s shoes, but I’m going to come in and learn and be the best player I can be on the court as well as off the court.”

Some Cleveland fans feel No. 2 should be retired. After all, Irving made the biggest shot in franchise history in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals before asking to be traded last summer to escape the daunting shadow cast by LeBron James.

Maybe one day No. 2 will hang in the rafters. For now, it belongs to Sexton.

With an eye toward rebuilding – and maybe persuading James to re-sign this summer – the Cavs selected Sexton, the lightning-quick Alabama point guard, on Thursday night with the No. 8 overall pick. As a freshman, the 19-year-old Sexton carried the Crimson Tide to the NCAA Tournament, for a brief time giving the school’s rabid football fans a late-winter diversion before coach Nick Saban blew his whistle in spring practice.

The Cavs believe Sexton, who earned his “Young Bull” nickname in high school for his charge-ahead playing style, can help them finally offset the loss of Irving. Without him, Cleveland lacked a dependable second-scoring option for James; the club spent the entire season with a virtual revolving door at the position as coach Tyronn Lue started eight point guards.

Irving’s absence was never felt more than in the Finals as the Golden State Warriors only had to concentrate on James. The Cavs didn’t have another player capable of breaking down their defense.

Sexton gives Cleveland a new weapon.

He’s in good hands. At Alabama, Sexton played for former NBA guard Avery Johnson, and he’s being passed to Cavs coach Tyronn Lue, a 14-year pro looking forward to developing the youngster.

“I’ve watched him play,” Lue said. “I understand who he is as a player and as a person, talked to his parents a lot throughout the course of his college selection, so I know them very well. I’m just excited, man. To be able to have a young talent that I can help mold and build and make better and teach him what suit to wear, what shoes to wear with a suit, how to tie a tie, when you go to dinner, things like that that Bryan Shaw and Robert Horry and Ron Harper and those guys taught me, so I’m very excited about that.”

Sexton wowed the Cavs during his personal workout, which came one day after Cleveland was swept by the Warriors. He attended Game 4, and as he witnessed James, Kevin Durant and others competing at the highest level the game offers, Sexton could imagine one day being part of the action.

“Like the seats were shaking,” he said. “Fans were screaming. Just I feel like I’ll be ready to play in something like that when it’s my time.”

Sexton smiled throughout his introductory news conference, which came following a nearly sleepless night in New York. And while he came across as easygoing and affable, there’s a darker side to Sexton.

On the floor, he’s ferocious.

“When you get between those lines, there’s no friends,” he said. “When you get between those lines it’s us against them, and we’re trying to win. It’s like a switch that cuts on. It’s go time when you get on the court.”